Frederick W. Norris is professor of church history and of world mission/evangelism at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.

Vocation always has a home base, but not all locations are equally attractive. One difficulty for some who have finished Ph.D. or Th.D. programs in religious or theological studies is that their experiences in a fine graduate school have influenced them to forsake considering teaching positions in the outback; they long for the colleagues, the libraries, and the cities that have nurtured them. Yet the job market remains clogged with many more applicants than posts. Some now flounder while teaching part time in more than one institution within a major city, with little or no hope of tenure, health benefits, or retirement security. Others take positions in the hinterland and dream incessantly of leaving. A third group joins prestigious faculties and scraps for tenure. A number falter because they cannot meet criteria now raised higher than the resident faculty themselves could have met so early in their careers. These young scholars slip away to what they consider “lesser” educational institutions and fail to create a career resembling what they had thought they were entering.

It has not always been so. The fourth-century Cappadocians provide a different model for fulfilling the vocation of a theological teacher. Each wound up serving the church, often quite seriously in teaching and sometimes in publication, either by returning to their homeland after education and/or appointments abroad or by never leaving it. Together they created a world-class theology that emerged primarily from the outback.

Cappadocia in the fourth century was quite Hellenized and thus participated in the Greco-Roman culture centered in the great cities of the empire. In many ways, however, it was still a buffer state for the Roman government. Cappadocia lacked outstanding cultural or educational institutions. Its “feudal” society encouraged neither a deep sense of freedom nor the growth of large cities. A local language still competed with the more widely usable Greek. People of means sent their children elsewhere for the best instruction in philosophy, rhetoric, or law.

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329-390), a Cappadocian called the “Theologian” by the Eastern Orthodox, was among those who created an internationally renowned theology in the outback. His family’s wealth allowed him to travel for schooling at Caesarea in Palestine, then at Alexandria, and to finish at Athens. Then he made his way back to Nazianzus, where he was pressed into ordination and ministry alongside his father in his home church, something he despised and fled. Yet he returned and served, using this distress as an occasion for writing, An Apology for His Flight, a painfully personal look at the vocation of a priest. That piece lies behind both John Chrysostom’s and Gregory the Great’s treatises on life as a priest, and thus forms a major understanding of religious vocation in both Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. 

Illustrations by Rob Myers/Ion Media.

Later Gregory spent nearly four years in a convent/monastery at Seleucia, and then returned to Constantinople to lead a small, struggling Orthodox community. Soon he was established in a large church. Most of his speeches and homilies that we still have were probably given in Constantinople, particularly his brilliant Theological Orations. In 381 Gregory resigned and returned to a stint as bishop of Nazianzen, then retired to Arianzus, where he wrote poetry and edited all his works.

Nazianzen’s doctrinal contributions concerning the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Christology, and soteriology are only recently being fully rediscovered. His trinitarian cosmology offers remarkable insights into ecological concerns. He anticipates Karl Rahner’s theme of anonymous Christians by noting that his father, raised among the non-Christian Hypsistarii, was with the church before he became a Christian. Furthermore, Nazianzen prefigures some of the ways in which Wittgenstein worked out philosophical problems through grammatical analyses. He has a grasp of logic that looks much like the best missiological insights of our era as well as the disputed but fascinating development of quantum logic in modern physics.

He studied abroad but polished his insights in the outback. Constantinople was the city where Nazianzen made public so many of the insights he had developed during his church service in Nazianzen and his monastic retreat at Seleucia. Yet the theology he and his friends created has proved to be one of the most interesting and substantial produced anywhere at any time.

A Cappadocian Family
The rest of those people most often seen as the creators of Cappadocian theology come from a single family. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa fill out the threesome. But here I also include Macrina, their sister, who has recently drawn sufficient attention to be considered another important figure in this theological development.

Basil the Great (330-379) also came from an aristocratic Cappadocian family. His father sent him to Cappadocian Caesarea and later to Constantinople and Athens to finish his education. Basil had a much stronger distrust of Hellenistic education than Nazianzen. He eventually turned all his energy to church service. His talent for both theology and administration caught the eye of Caesarea’s Christian leaders and eventually he followed Eusebius as bishop. His effectiveness in shaping Nicene faith and its institutions cannot be denied.

All Basil’s ecclesiastical career took place in Cappadocian Caesarea. His monastic rules, developed out of visits to Egypt and Palestine, perhaps even Syria and Mesopotamia, and put in place at Caesarea, remain honored ones. The liturgy that he reformed at Caesarea is still celebrated by churches of the Eastern rite on particular Sundays. In a treatise written against the Eunomians, he sets many of the terms of the debate with this new Christology that viewed the Son’s divine nature as less than that of the Father. His nine homilies on the Hexaemeron, the six days of creation, show that he knew the natural science of his time well and could interweave the Old Testament texts and the concerns of his era. His treatise on the Holy Spirit has been retranslated in the twentieth century.

One of Basil’s most unexpected accomplishments was the creation of a new city near Caesarea in Cappadocia. He built a church, a bishop’s residence, a monastery, and a hostel for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. The hostel soon turned into a hospital for the afflicted, with a section for lepers, and then, during a difficult famine, became a place of refuge for hundreds, even thousands, of homeless and starving people. This new city became the center of planning and activity. Three centuries later the old Roman city of Caesarea had fallen into ruin while Basil’s new city had become the hub of urban life.

There were ten children in Basil’s family, but not even all four of the males were sent abroad for study. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335—c. 395), Basil’s brother, gained no education outside his homeland. Rather he was able to acquire a number of the best books and pursue studies with frontier teachers. He became a skilled rhetorician. He married, yet served as bishop in the small town of Nyssa.

His writings indicate remarkable wisdom about Scripture, sometimes at deeper levels than either Basil or Gregory the Theologian. Of the three, Gregory of Nyssa demonstrates the greatest talent as a biblical exegete, one who followed in the steps of Origen. In his commentary on the Song of Songs he goes beyond Origen while considering the book’s central theme as the love between God and the soul, an allegorical interpretation that even in our age brings considerable insight to congregations and monastic communities.


The profundity of his understanding of philosophy and of different disciplines is unexpected. One of his letters defines the technical vocabulary employed for distinguishing the threeness and the oneness of the Trinity hypostasis (“person”) and ousia(“being”), in ways not before made so clear. He employed ideas from Galen and other physicians in order to work out various moves within trinitarian theology, particularly in the employment of the term dynamis (power). His attack on Eunomian opponents represents the most sophisticated analysis and persuasive response to Eunomius that the Cappadocians developed. His vigorous rebuttal of Apollinaris, the friend who fought against Arius’s denial of the Son’s full divine nature but himself insisted that Jesus Christ did not have a full manhood, is the only extensive response we have from the Cappadocians. His mystical vision is one of the most stunning available from the early church. He constantly reflects on the life of God and the ways in which worshipers may grow through meditation and the practice of virtue and may actually participate in God’s perfections. Nyssa was as responsible for the substance of Cappadocian theology as any.

Usually the Cappadocians are considered to be these three. One of the gains from recent scholarship, however, has been the suggestion that Gregory of Nyssa is quite serious in insisting that his and Basil’s sister, Macrina the Younger (c. 327—c. 380), was a significant figure in the evolution of Cappadocian theology. Macrina evidently never traveled much outside Cappadocia. She did, however, use her portion of the family wealth to set up a convent at Pontus where she read and reflected on Scripture and Christian tradition; she also offered both food and lodging to the poor. We know little about her except what Nyssa says in one treatise that reflects on her life and a second that speaks of their discussions on her deathbed concerning the soul and the resurrection. He considered her an honored teacher. If we read Nyssa’s piece On the Soul and the Resurrection rather straightforwardly, we hear him insisting that she offered him insights that he had not learned in his own studies and had not heard from the other two more famous theologians in the circle. Her explanation began with a look at human life from the vantage point of natural phenomena, but she went on to speak of the hidden hand of God within human tragedies and then moved to talk about life hereafter. In Nyssen’s view, she seemed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Macrina did not receive access to formal education, yet she learned to read, to contemplate, and to talk about important topics in ways that permanently influenced her family and those in her convent. The insightful Nyssa appears to be happy to serve as her scribe and thus offer the world her views.

Along the Silk Road
All these fourth-century figures suggest that the plight of many twenty-first century theological teachers does not necessarily entail the death of their theological contributions. The history of theology makes it abundantly clear that the best efforts of any era have not always come from the most prestigious educational or theological center. Every published history of Christian doctrine or practice is forced to rely heavily on people who did not live in the “recognized” centers of learning and power during their given eras. And each printed history that now informs such study in departments of religious studies or theological seminaries can be shown to have overlooked important developments in the hinterlands. Christian theologies that developed along the Silk Road to China in the first millennium are seldom given attention in courses on historical theology in spite of the fact that their originators knew religious pluralism firsthand and formed some of the best available approaches to other world religions. For example, some ancient Chinese documents found in a Buddhist monastery at Dunhuang, China, display a contextualized Christian theology that has come to terms with a series of Confucian and Buddhist insights without totally sacrificing the Christian gospel. Recorded discussions between Christian bishops and Muslim leaders, available in Syriac or Arabic, show ways in which indigenous Christians could accept the dominant Arabic culture without abandoning their faith for Muslim belief. It is odd that such works from the outback, so clearly valuable in facing the challenges of contemporary global religious pluralism, remain widely unknown in standard religious studies and theological curricula. This normative Western myopia has proved to be difficult to cure. Even in surveys of the modern period, African, Asian, and South American works have only recently begun to dent the dominance of the European-North American partnership.

To live in the outback and teach theology you must look for the footprints of God imbedded in a (sub)culture perhaps unknown to you or left behind for your advanced studies. The Cappadocians were able to return to their homeland and stay within or near it because they all had world views that encompassed more than their specific localities but were well rooted within them.

Lessons from the Cappadocians
In our present setting, some teachers may not have been able to study at the university of their choice. Others may not have gotten the jobs they most desired. Still others may not have received tenure in the university whose reputation was going to ensure their careers. But should any of us decide to take advantage of the outback, of places we did not know or have rejected, we need not think that all is lost. The Cappadocians have taught us a series of lessons that are still worth learning today.

1) Each understood rather fully that prayer, meditation, and worship were basic components of their theological vocation. The spiritual formation of the soul was the purpose of their ministry. It led to lives of devotion and service. That can be undertaken in any setting. 

2) These four, and a number of others such as Basil and Nyssen’s brother, Peter, formed a critical mass that was sufficient in number and in scope to encourage the emergence of nearly the best from each. They sent letters to many others, thus enlarging their circle. The internet now provides contacts never dreamed of by scholars even thirty years ago; it is certainly better than the slow letter traffic and slower travel available to the Cappadocians. Critical mass need not be confined to a small locale. 

3) The Cappadocian circle shared work with each other that is now available to us quickly and in much larger quantity than they ever possessed. Our critical texts and concordances, not only of Scripture but also of many significant theologians throughout history, are much more accessible than anything they ever possessed. Interlibrary loan does strike us as slow but it is usually efficient. Some outback institutions may provide funds for travel to larger libraries. Sometimes administrative support for lexical aids, dictionaries or commentaries, and research projects that take considerable time is more easily found in a good backwoods setting.

4) The Cappadocians seem to have breathed the local air deeply and made the different character of the hinterland serve as a creative component of what they did. None was so taken in by dominant Hellenistic culture that they could not see places in which it adopted anti-Christian stances. They appropriated that heritage with incisive care. The also looked carefully at developing Christian views and practices.

Being Where We Are
Moving to more personal observations after nearly a quarter-century teaching in the outback, I note that aspects of spiritual formation become a necessity in the provinces. Yet I suspect that nearly any seminary or religious studies professor in North America is struck by the vital spirituality of international students who come from out-of-the-way Christian fellowships. There they experienced the power of grace and virtue, the significance of prayer, study, and communities of friendship. Their towns and regions, like those of the Cappadocians, are seldom known, but their faith and life often seem much more advanced.

Outside the confines of modern European and North American university culture, outside the cities that provide stimulation, entertainment, and bustle, there is time to consider other things. Early Christian theologians spoke of acedia as a vice to be avoided. It is that ennui that saps anyone of vision and energy. At low times in a day, you can easily and unhelpfully become fixated on what conventional wisdom would regard as your unfortunate circumstances. This really is the hinterland. The lives of desert saints seem far too similar to your own. And then you reconsider the fact that those saints’ insights have been found fertile by generations of theologians striving in many locations to understand their own vocation. Could those desert monks, or those involved in other kinds of orders, have attained the wisdom we recognize if they had not lived in the outback?

The amount of determination needed to stay with the tasks that mark your vocation can often be more than you possess. Persistence in slow and steady work still produces results; indeed there are some scholarly tasks that respond to nothing other than that.

It is probably easier to carve out moments for prayer in an outback culture where the demands for research and publication are not quite as heavy and the speed of the culture is not quite so fast. Meditative study of Scripture and classics of spirituality can more readily become a part of daily life; they appear in a place more amenable to such significant monastic practices. Hinterland teaching that so depends upon these lifestyles just might provide the richest environment for what you want to teach, research, and write.

A community of local friends with whom you worship, teach, play and serve, can reinforce the purpose that frees both the intellect and the spirit for growth. In the provinces, you get to know faculty and staff spouses and children as real people and thus as those who must be considered seriously as potential audiences for any scholarly project. Thus the focus of written work is larger; the best is not always thought to be the technical investigation important to the other dozen people in the world who labor in the area. In the hinterland, friends and families form the crucible in which theology is brought to a boil. Worshiping congregations are often an extension of this community, remarkable participants in your life as well as any project you might undertake.

A different community of friendship, both with those met at conferences and pursued over the internet, is not the best route for finding comrades, but it does allow specialists to talk with each other at length about shared issues. Those who have been engaged in such exchanges know that they participate in their mutual work more as friends than acquaintances.

One last point needs strong emphasis. None of these habits of the heart that invigorate the vocation of theological teachers arise only in the boondocks. This essay is meant to accentuate the good that can emerge in the provinces, a reality too often overlooked as teachers search for places in which they may pursue their theological vocations. Readjusting our search to include the outback, whether it be a mission college in Malaysia or a small college in Montana, makes sense. Putting our energies into efforts that can be done where we are encourages remarkable insights. Theologies and theological teachers now popping up outside Europe and North America clearly indicate that the outback produces world-class accomplishments. If we look carefully, we may find this true in unexpected places in Europe and North America. 

Excerpted from Frederick W. Norris, “Vocation in the Outback,” in The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, edited by L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell, Copyright 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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